Chance in Hell


By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-833-6

There’s fiction, there’s Meta-fiction and then there is Gilbert Hernandez. In addition to being part of the graphic and literary revolution that was Love and Rockets (where his incredibly insightful tales of Palomar and later stories of those characters collected in Luba gained such critical acclaim) he has produced stand-alone tales such as Sloth, Grip, Birdland and Girl Crazy; all marked by his bold, instinctive, compellingly simplified artwork and a mature, sensitive adoption of the literary techniques of Magical Realism. In comicbook terms he has evolved those techniques and made them his own.

A seemingly tireless experimenter and innovator, in 2006 Beto began to acknowledge some of his cinematic and literary influences such as Roger Corman, John Cassavetes, Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson: breaking new ground and reprocessing cultural influences that shaped many of us baby-boomers.

In Luba and other tales of Palomar we often glimpsed the troubled life of her half-sister Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez: a brilliant, troubled woman, lisping psychotherapist, sex-worker, belly-dancer and former B-movie starlet of such faux screen gems as Three Mystic Eyes, Blood is the Drug and Love From the Shadows. In her fictive biography Fritzi had begun her film career in a brutal exploitation pic called Chance in Hell

Hernandez began “adapting” those trashy movies as fully realised graphic novels.

He started with Chance in Hell – although Fritzi only had a bit part in it – and crafted a bleak, violent yet strangely contemplative tale about a girl born into the worst of lives: one which she eventually escaped from if not necessarily grew out of…

Released as a digest-sized monochrome hardback, this sordid saga opens in a place we’ve all seen if not experienced…

Barely a toddler, Empress had already endured the worst the apocalyptic slum could muster: starvation, rape and casual murder as she blithely questioned the other juvenile scavengers in search of “Daddy”…

Even after being “adopted” by one of the boy-gangs her quest continues, punctuated by hunger, violence and the constant attention of well-to-do, predatory men from the city intent on slaking their particular peccadilloes on a child nobody values…

When a misunderstanding results in an ever-escalating slaughter, her protector dies and Empress is spirited away to the city by one of those prowling vultures in suits.

Some years later, exuding the confidence of wealth and experience, Empress is constantly drawn to the Red Light district where the flashy pimps and their human wares ply a never-ending trade. She’s barely a teenager and doesn’t seem to care about the lucky life she leads. The man who ultimately took her from the wastes where the city has always left its unwanted children is decent and honest: a poetry editor. She has never had to feel the terror and pain inflicted on so many others from her station, but still she is restless and increasingly rebellious…

Empress wants to be with the dangerous under-people; the debased and violent survivors. She despises her guardian’s hopes and aspirations that she will one day “rise above”…

Even though her current existence is a comparative paradise, she is drawn to those elements which exemplify her traumatic early years and when she discovers the sordid, sexual secret of her adoptive father something primal resurfaces in her…

Abandoning everything she knows, Empress seeks out a church-run Safe Haven for Girls and grows to womanhood in vague, regimented security. Even after settling down with a good man and becoming a suburban housewife, her disconnection and discontent remain. When a face from her past resurfaces so does her primal conditioning and she seeks out the formative places of her childhood. Tragedy follows tragedy and when the notorious “babykiller” of her youth escapes justice, her mind begins to spiral…

Whatever you’re assuming happens next, you’re almost certainly wrong…

Raw and disturbing yet thoroughly engaging, this tale within a tale eschews all the traditions of dramatic plot for casual causality: stuff happens, we react, more stuff happens, people die, the world goes on…

And yet beneath it all there’s shaded but potent criticism of how we allow our society to treat individuals, and hard questions asked about what we actually mean by the terms “caring” and “humanity”…

For all its experimental veneer and political subtext, Chance in Hell still has all Hernandez’s signature elements: matter-of-fact sexuality, sharp dialogue and sly surrealism to elevate it above the vast body of such fiction. This is a tale no thinking fan of the comics medium should miss…
© 2007 Gilbert Hernandez. All rights reserved.